"The exercising of weapons putteth away aches, griefs, and diseases, it increaseth strength and sharpeneth the wits, it giveth a perfect judgment, it expelleth melancholy, choleric, and evil conceits, it keepeth a man in breath, in perfect healthe, and long life." – George Silver (1599)
Japanese katana can have exquistite handguards or tsubas. Auction catalogues of the most beautiful specimens shows the amazing craftsmanship of their creation, when one uses chisels to “paint metal”. These videos which show a modern recreation of a missing tsuba to pair the existant wakazaki tsuba are fascinating.
The art of producing the famous 16-18th century Damascus steel blades found in many museums was lost long ago. Recently, however, research has established strong evidence supporting the theory that the distinct surface patterns on these blades result from a carbide-banding phenomenon produced by the microsegregation of minor amounts of carbide-forming elements present in the wootz ingots from which the blades were forged. Further, it is likely that wootz Damascus blades with damascene patterns may have been produced only from wootz ingots supplied from those regions of India having appropriate impurity-containing ore deposits.
Here is a very good article outlining the evolution of swords as a response to their historical conditions like the rise and fall of plate. There is also an interesting talk of straight vs. curved cavalry swords http://www.thehaca.com/essays/nobest.htm